Choosing a day care is one of the most important decisions parents make for their infants and toddlers. Your child will spend most of his waking hours there, so it's important to find an environment that is safe and nurturing physically, emotionally and academically.

I've worked in the field of early childhood education for decades. Here are my top eight things to look for when searching for the right child care.

Convenience

Consider the following: Do the program's hours work for your schedule? Is it near your home or office? How long will it take you to get there if there's an emergency during the day?

Cost

While it's crucial to find a program that fits into your budget, that doesn't mean you should scrimp on quality. If your dream day care is too costly for you to manage, ask about scholarships. Many communities have programs to help working parents with the cost of child care.

First impressions

Drop in unannounced to get a feel for a place. Pay close attention to how you're greeted and what's going on. Is it chaotic? Did you walk right in without anyone noticing you? Do the children look happy and occupied? Notice the teachers: Are they warm and caring? Do they seem to genuinely like children?

Recommendations

Ask other parents and caregivers who currently use the day care, as well as former families about their experiences there. Also check with the local Better Business Bureau. A quick online search never hurts, either.

Cleanliness

Sure, with dozens of small children, it's tough to keep a building clean, but it is imperative to keep everyone healthy. Do you notice any foul smells? Teachers should wear gloves for diapering and wash their hands before and after. Procedures should be in place for sanitizing all equipment and toys throughout the day.

Ratios

In Florida, one teacher is allowed by law to be alone with 11 two-year-olds. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends a one-to-six ratio for the same age group. The lower the ratio, the more attention your child will receive. The ratio varies depending on the age group. If your day care is NAEYC-approved, find out the appropriate NAEYC ratio for your child's age. Check the website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to learn your state's health and safety recommendations.

Turnover

Once you've found the perfect teacher, you want some assurance that she won't leave two weeks after you enroll your child. Find out the program's turnover rate. If teachers frequently leave, they may be unhappy about the way they're treated or about something happening at the school, which is cause for concern.

Policies and procedures

Confirm the school is up to date on licensing standards by contacting your local department of children and families. Ask to see the school's policy and procedure handbooks. They should have plans in place for dealing with a wide variety of issues from lice outbreaks to power outages. Ask about the center's safety procedures.

Choosing a day care doesn't have to be overwhelming. In the end, trust your instincts.


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Rachael Moshman, M.Ed. is a mom, writer and educator. Find her at ramblingrach.com.